All too human at the core

QUEST FOR FREEDOM: Subramania bharathi (far right) with family   | Photo Credit: scanned in chennai

The revolutionaries who rallied to Tilak's call in the Tamil country were a curious group who deserve more attention from historians. Many, like Bharati, eschewed violence, but a few were convinced that radical action was necessary against British rule. Their machinations came to a head when a young anarchist called Vanchinathan shot and killed Robert Ash, the Collector of Tirunelveli, in December 1911 at Maniyachi Junction near Madurai and then turned his gun on himself.

Though Bharati was unaware of the plot and played no part in the assassination, he came under suspicion as many of the conspirators were known to be close to him. The British moved swiftly to ban his publications in their territories and also set spies to keep a close watch on his movements. In one stroke, Bharati's political work was cut from beneath his feet.

It is necessary here to give the reader some idea of Bharati's personal life at this time. Bharati never earned much as an editor. Generous to a fault, he often gave away what little he had. He kept an open home, feeding acquaintances of all stripes, little understanding the strain this placed on his meagre resources. The result was a steady grinding poverty that was to haunt him all his life.


What also of his wife Sellammal upon whom fell the burden of managing an intense, impractical genius of a husband and her two daughters? Sellammal was married to Bharati when she was barely seven. For years she did not see him. Even when Bharati was in Madras, she was forced to live for extended periods with her parents in native Kadayam as he could simply not support a family. When Bharati fled to French Pondicherry, she was pregnant with their second child and the thought of having to raise her children alone must have been frightening.

In 1951, 30 years after Bharati's death, she delivered a poignant talk in Tamil on the Tiruchi station of All India Radio on ‘Bharati: My Husband.' “For a poet,” she said, “words are enough for his worldly needs... But to the very wife he describes in his poetry as ‘the queen of love' falls the daily duty of bringing rice to the table each day… What can one do with a man such as this?”

Deprived of an outlet for his political writings, Bharati turned inwards. The years of exile in Pondicherry from 1908-1918 that constituted the third main phase of his life define Bharati for posterity; when his genius burst forth in song, poetry and prose. Some of the greatest works to flow from his pen happened between 1911 and 1913. His writings cover an astonishing array of subjects: the sublime natural world of birds and animals, songs to the child, love songs, devotional and philosophical compositions, besides the short story and the novel. Bharati's mastery of the idiom of old Tamil allowed him to effortlessly sublimate it to the need for a fresh, contemporary voice, so that many of his compositions have a timeless rootedness in tradition in which a new direct, uncomplicated style and vivid imagery are overlaid to almost hypnotic effect.

Intertwined with this intensely creative life of the mind was an ever-present spectre of destitution that drove him to periodic fits of despair. As if being poor was not enough, Bharati's passion for social causes and his wilful disregard for what others thought or said of him made him a perfect lightning rod for controversy. In 1913, in one of the most debated acts of his life, he performed the sacred thread ceremony for a Dalit, Kanakalingam.

Despite days filled with activity, it seems likely that his confinement within Pondicherry, the ever-present surveillance by British agents, gnawing poverty and also ostracism from the orthodox sections of his own community combined to place enormous psychological stress on Bharati. He had always possessed a latent ascetic streak, and he now began to keep company with local siddhars—mendicants. From them he took to the habit of using psychotropic substances that weakened his already frail constitution.

In November 1918, in an act of final desperation, he broke exile and entered British India at Cuddalore. He was promptly arrested and lodged in Cuddalore jail from where he wrote to Lord Pentland, the Governor of Madras, seeking his release: “I once again assure your Excellency that I have renounced every form of politics and I shall ever be loyal to British Government and law abiding.”

No recognition

It does not take much imagination to guess the inner torments that must have forced these words from Bharati's pen. Nor did his release shortly after mean better days ahead. Constrained by lack of means to live with his wife's brother in Kadayam, Bharati had for long been oppressed by a feeling that his works had not received the wider recognition they deserved. He wrote to many of his friends and former benefactors seeking their help in having a compendium of his life's work published, pleading that “they will do for the Tamil Country what the works of Tagore have done for Bengal.”

Sadly these appeals did not garner the money needed and this was to remain a source of bitter disappointment till the end. By 1919 his poems began to turn to existential questions of life and death. His combative nature and hot temper, however, do not seem to have cooled and a fight forced him to leave Kadayam for Madras in 1920 where he met his death the following year.

In recent times some scholars have averred that, despite his iconoclasm, Bharati never shed his Brahmin roots. There is reason to believe that he resumed wearing his sacred thread (if indeed he threw it away in Benares), and that he gave this symbol of caste importance from the very fact that he performed the act of investing it on a Dalit. Also he is said to have reacted violently to a marriage proposal for his daughter from a lower caste friend — the reason for the Kadayam quarrel. If anything, these point to Bharati's all too human qualities, and to the difficulties of bracketing him into ready categories.

Conflicting positions

In his recent introduction to Deep Rivers: Selected Writings on Tamil Literature by Francois Gros, the Tamil scholar M Kannan writes: “Studying Tamil, one cannot escape the impression that the Tamil world generally seems to be portrayed in black and white with nothing in between and nothing beyond: Sanskrit versus Tamil, Aryan versus Dravidian, Classical versus Contemporary, Brahmin versus non-Brahmin, Tamil versus Pure Tamil, the opposing positions in which Tamil culture seems to be enmeshed are endless.”

In Bharati all these contradictions were melded together in a way that made him, quite simply, unique. This December marks the 127th anniversary of Bharati's birth. As we rush through the 21st century, impatient in many ways with our past, we would do well to reflect in passing on this many-faceted son of India who gave so completely of himself to the liberty of his motherland.

The author is a research and innovation entrepreneur. Email: The first part of this article was carried in the last issue of the Sunday Magazine.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 11:27:11 PM |

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